David Zaslav has spent the last year aggressively rebranding himself. A Patagonia-vested, GE-trained “cable cowboy,” brought up under the tutelage of “Neutron” Jack Welch and Bob Wright and John Malone, Zaslav has long focused on keeping costs low and content cheap—a strategy that coincidentally made him the highest-paid media executive in the business despite a portfolio of assets that many of his competitors privately describe as mediocre. But after engineering the deal of the decade and putting himself at the helm of a combined WarnerMedia-Discovery, with control over the illustrious HBO and Warner Bros., Zaslav has recast himself in a new light: The Hollywood Mogul, on a level with the likes of Bob Iger.
Ensconced in the Elizabeth Taylor Suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel while awaiting the remodel of his newly acquired Robert Evans estate, Zaslav took meetings with everyone who was anyone in the business and signaled a profound respect and admiration for creatives and talent. He posed for glowing profiles in Vanity Fair and Variety—the latter poolside at the suite, with multiple blazer ensembles and no vest—and spoke about the importance of restoring the luster of the storied Warner Bros. studio while creating a streaming service that could compete with Netflix and Disney. And Hollywood was receptive: On the whole, the industry’s executives, creatives, and agents respect and admire Zaslav; the people I talk to describe him as a gutsy, no-nonsense leader; and they have been bullish on his new company from the start.
And yet no goodwill listening tour and no amount of puff pieces can change the fact that one of Zaslav’s first objectives at his newly established media empire is to do what he has long done so well, which is to cut costs and find efficiencies. Warner Bros. Discovery has $55 billion in debt and Zaslav has promised $3 billion in cost synergies from the merger. That means that turning Warner Bros. Discovery into a Hollywood powerhouse will require a lot of job losses and a lot of pain. And if you go back through the year’s worth of clips from Zaslav’s rebranding tour and read the tea leaves, you can tell that Zaslav’s first target was always going to be CNN+, the three-week-old streaming service that will die next week, well before anyone ever gets the chance to see if it might have taken flight.